Ahead of The Oscars, what are ad execs’ favorite ever movie marketing campaigns?

This weekend brings the 96th Academy Awards, arguably the biggest night in entertainment. But first, a somewhat less prestigious straw poll: leading marketers’ highlight reels of movie marketing.

There’s no Oscar for best trailer, or best poster, best product tie-in (well, there is a kind of unofficial equivalent: the Golden Trailer Awards, for which you’ll have to wait until May 30). But the movies are a proudly commercial art form, with a whole ecosystem of artists working to promote the movies themselves – think the gorgeous posters, trailers and title sequences of Saul Bass, or the world-famous promotional illustrations of Drew Struzan.

So: what are the pieces of movie marketing magic that have stuck longest in the minds of leading marketers? We asked six creative and strategic minds from The Drum Network for their personal award winners.

Allan Blair, head of strategy, VaynerMedia EMEA: The Blair Witch Project’s immersive campaign

“Since I was a kid, I’ve loved horror movies. By my early twenties, I’d seen them all; I’d become desensitized to the jumps, frights and scares. Then, in 1999, I went to see a movie that blew my tiny 22-year-old mind: The Blair Witch Project. The movie itself is somewhat unspectacular: a roughly shot found-footage movie about a film crew mostly wandering around the woods. Yet, to this day, it’s one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had. That’s almost entirely down to its marketing campaign. The makers of the film realized that the limitations of the film (a shoddy, homemade aesthetic and a cast of unknowns) were also its biggest assets. The brilliant marketing leaned into this with realistic ‘missing’ posters and flyers featuring the cast and spurious stories of missing documentary makers. It set early internet users into a conspiracy frenzy (back when conspiracy theories were fun and not right-wing disinformation tools). As the legend gained traction, the filmmakers released a ‘documentary’ on the Sci-Fi Channel that brought the internet chat to a wider, mainstream audience.

From there, excitement and anticipation were spread by word of mouth, internet rumors, and snippets of grainy ‘real-life’ videos of ‘missing’ documentary makers. The eventual poster didn’t feature the cast, a tagline, or even an image. It contained one line: “blairwitch.com: 21,222,589 hits to date.” That was an astounding 11% of all internet users in 1999. People queued around the blocks for early showings, many believing it was real footage of a real documentary. I’ll never forget leaving that late-night showing at the Odeon in Glasgow to sit in a pub with friends, still in shock and not quite understanding whether it was real. Even now, I’m not entirely certain it isn’t.”

Claire Elsworth, strategy director, Impression: The Lego Movie’s #EverythingIsAwesome

“Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re… No, I’m not sorry it’s stuck in your head now. The Lego movie could have been confined to the movie archives as another successful kids’ film; an expensive branded content piece wrought to support toy sales. It ended up being one of the highest-grossing films of 2014, spawning a series of also-successful sequels; and got that song earwormed into the cultural brain forever. All of this is due in no small part to the advertising campaign. The posters and trailers didn’t just tease us with the best bits of (what we thought would be) a toy film. They showed us what it would feel like to live in the Lego universe. Taking over a prime-time ad break, recreating recognizable ads in Lego, forcing us to imagine our world as Lego.

“#EverythingIsAwesome had us weaving the lyrics into our lives before we’d even heard the song. It blurred the lines between reality and the Lego world, transcending traditional advertising and turning the franchise into a phenomenon.”

Oh Chin Ying, senior creative strategist, Tommy: the Paranormal Activity jump scare

“With no pre-existing IP like Marvel or Barbie, a cast and crew of total unknowns, and a budget of $15,000, 2007’s Paranormal Activity grossed nearly $200m. The first mega-hit from independent Blumhouse productions, it changed the game for film marketing with a simple rule: your audience is your biggest weapon. Anchored by a website where audiences could vote for the independent film to come to their city, the film was touted as the ‘first-ever film release decided by you’. At 13, I saw the trailer in the cinema and was floored. Instead of the conventional trailer treatment with a supercut of scenes, it played out the live reactions of a terrified audience at a test screening. Staged or not, that was a completely fresh take on the trailer that compelled even a horrorphobe like me to catch it on opening day.”

Jamie Davies, executive creative director, UK, Momentum Worldwide: Dune: Part Two (but not the popcorn buckets)

“Anything Denis Villeneuve directs is a must-see: Sicario and Prisoners both had perfect, suspenseful tension-building trailers, cut to perfection. Now Dune and Dune: Part Two, which could just be the greatest two-parter ever made, with mind-blowing acting, direction, cinematography, set design, costumes, sound, and posters (but the less said about the sandworm popcorn buckets, the better.)

“Elsewhere, Ridley Scott’s Alien posters have the immortal tagline ‘In space no one can hear you scream’, perfectly encapsulating the premise of the film in one line of copy. And I recently laughed out loud in the cinema at the trailer for the new film Wicked Little Letters, a masterclass of editing that alludes to incredible feats of swearing, without a single filthy utterance.”

Kevin Windsor, creative director, PrettyGreen: the legendary Ghostbusters logo

“The main reason I was obsessed with Ghostbusters as a kid was because of that logo. It’s one of the few instances where the in-world branding took center stage in the real-world marketing (Batman and Jurassic Park did a similar thing years later). In the movie, Ghostbusters was a service: paranormal pest control. So of course they would have a logo – on their uniforms, and on ECTO-1 (the best movie car ever). It was also the only thing on the iconic 80s movie poster. It was THAT good. Conceived by Dan Ackroyd and designed by Michael Gross, it communicated everything the audience needed to know. I hated the variation they did for the sequel as it broke the in-world usage for purely movie marketing reasons. Why would the actual Ghostbusters change their logo to a ghost holding up two fingers? It doesn’t make sense!”

Lois Kettlewell, managing partner, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment: Men in Black, the proto-Barbie

“Last year, Barbie turned culture pink. But who else remembers Men in Black, the OG of the Barbie movie marketing model? The 1997 classic action-comedy had compelling iconography, a catchy soundtrack and, crucially, more than 30 licensees: Ray-Ban; Head & Shoulders, Galoob Toys, and Hamilton Watches, to name a few. With a plotline of suits, sunglasses, technology, cars and aliens, the movie was ripe for partnerships, and it is through these deals that Men in Black, a story adapted from comic books, could reach such a cross-section of audiences. For the brand licenses, the movie was a massive cultural marketing platform (and still is). Plus, Will Smith’s debut single Men in Black is a bop.”

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